If Only Turks Were British

OhmyNews International, South Korea
Aug 11 2007

If Only Turks Were British
Turkey’s never-ending struggle for freedom of expression

Ozge Baykan (ozgeb)

"And how splendid it would be, if we could transform our people, oh
yes, our people who are frequently seen buzzing around some hideous
swamp like strange and wonderful horseflies -if only we could
transform those creatures into them; them, the marvelous and innocent
Englishmen, if only we could transform them into Englishmen with a
single touch of a magical wand."

The fictitious admirer in Kaya Genc’s short story would be happy to
see his country transformed into an exact copy of Britain. At times,
he finds himself wishing "with profound sorrow" that "those
respectable members of the House of Lords with their constant and
colorful wags and crowns on their heads" ruled the Turks.

Turkish writer and translator Kaya makes a mockery of this blind
admiration of the West, but some others read it from an another
perspective — under Article 301 of the new penal code, he was
accused of "insulting Turkishness."

Kaya obtained a master’s in English literature from the University of
Amsterdam. He has continued his graduate studies in the same field in
Istanbul. He is a devout reader and a big fan of contemporary British
and American literature.

When writing that story, he had Gogol’s "The Diary of a Madman" in
mind where the character imagines the dog of his beloved is capable
of talking. "When you read it, you can’t decide whether to laugh at
him or to take him seriously," Kaya says. "Even though his ideas
sound crazy, that’s how he thinks. I like his ideas, I like that
wonderland. But then again I don’t take it seriously."

In his case, however, some people did take the occidentalist’s dreams

Kaya’s example is only one of the many Article 301 stories that have
recently attracted massive attention from international media. Nobel
Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and best-selling writer Elif
Shafak are two other intellectuals who stood trial due to their
writings or statements related to the mass killings of Armenians in
the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Since the introduction of
Article 301 in 2005, hundreds of writers, journalists, editors and
even translators have been tried.

While writer Perihan Magden’s defense of his refusal to perform
military service offended the military, the January assassination of
Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who had previously been
charged with insulting Turkishness in his writings on the Armenian
"genocide," became a turning point in Turkey’s struggle for freedom
of expression.

Article 301 stipulates imprisonment up to three years for publicly
denigrating "Turkishness," the Turkish Republic or the Grand National
Assembly of Turkey, as well as the judicial institutions of the
state, and military or security organizations. The article does not
criminalize criticism, but, due to its vagueness, it is not clear
where to draw the line between denigration and critical opinion.

Pamuk’s words to a Swiss magazine in 2005 — "Thirty thousand Kurds
and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me
dares to talk about it" — caused furious protests by Turkish
nationalists who threatened the writer with death. A group of
nationalist lawyers sued him under the penal code. The charges were
later dropped, but the impact of the trial left Turkey with a
negative image regarding its human rights and freedom of expression

Trials might involve statements by real people or fictitious
characters, as in the case of Kaya Genc. Like Elif Shafak, who was
charged for comments made by her characters in her book The Bastard
of Istanbul, a reader filed a complaint against Kaya. "He [the
reader] mistook me for a character of my own creation, which is a
very common mistake among readers who don’t have good reading
skills," Kaya said.

"I am well educated, well read and very familiar with the literary
canon. Whereas those people, who like to complain about intellectuals
and novels so much, are completely unaware of what irony is or what
parody is," he added.

For Kaya, readers who like to complain "lack the knowledge of basic
linguistic and rhetorical concepts; they cannot distinguish the
voices of characters, the narrator and the author from each other,
which perfectly reflects the way they perceive this society. They
don’t know how to read properly, so they can neither see the irony in
my work nor in the world that surrounds us."

The law is designed so that anyone who feels offended by the
"intentions" of a writer can file a complaint. "That’s exactly the
problem because when someone filed a complaint against you, you will
have to go and tell them that you did not intend to do what they
charge you with, which is a real headache, as you may have to spend
the rest of your life claiming to be innocent," Kaya explained.

Among many others, Pamuk and Dink were made to prove their intentions
in public after the lawsuits were brought against them. Still, they
failed to convince those who felt offended, especially the

Threats against their lives continued, which meant they had to cancel
several meetings and interviews, and take more security measures.
After the murder of Dink, who had been receiving threats for over a
year but refused to leave his homeland, the climate of fear managed
to scare publishers and editors who now hesitate to publish texts
that might constitute a crime.

As an intellectual who felt the blade of Article 301 on his neck,
Kaya said with a vague smile,"I don’t feel threatened that much. I
feel threatened by the stupidity of certain readers but not Article
301 per se."

"I have no regrets, no. I am proud of having written it."